Jean Renoir has recorded the following recollections: "When I was still very little, three, four or five years old, my father did not tell me how I was to pose but took advantage of some occupation that seemed to keep me quiet. The paintings of Jean playing with toy soldiers, eating his soup, moving his building blocks or looking at picture books were thus captured on canvas" (Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, mon père, Paris, 1981). Renoir was an attentive father, and he joyfully compiled what amounts to a veritable family album recording the childhood of his sons, alone or with their mother, or, again, with one of the servants, usually the faithful Gabrielle. Gabrielle Renard (1879-1959) joined the Renoir household staff when Madame Renoir was expecting her second child, who turned out to be Jean, the future cinematographer.
The painting entitled Gabrielle and Jean belongs to a vast array of works depicting these two protagonists, works that reflect a broad range of techniques. The picture shown here doubtless dates from 1895-1896, considering the age of the child, who was born in September 1894.
The beautifully rustic maidservant in dark blue with her dark brown hair and olive skin contrasts with the Venetian-blond baby, whose white dress forms a vast, luminous expanse. Their left arms are touching closely in an affectionate pose, while the child's right hand attempts to imitate Gabrielle's by grasping one of the figurines. The latter are sparsely and unobtrusively brushed in and cause no break in continuity with the table in the foreground, which is handled not as a hard, inert object but as a soft, undulating material. The variegated surface area and the resulting horizontal plane indistinctly echo the two large vertical sections in the background, which have been given a blurred treatment. These two wall sections, with their contrasts of material, appearance, size, and color, breathe air into this painting, providing at the same time, along with the triangular surface of the table, geometrical planes that circumscribe the plastic reality of the two figures.